TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese police arrested on Thursday a Nigerian man in the U.S. navy on suspicion of murdering and robbing a taxi driver last month, the latest case of crime linked to U.S. military bases in the country.
Japanese and U.S. officials, however, moved swiftly to limit any diplomatic fallout, and Japan’s top government spokesman said the bilateral alliance would not be affected by such cases.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said he hoped it would not affect the planned deployment of a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Japan, a move opposed by some local groups.
Nearly 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan under the U.S.-Japan security alliance, a pillar of Tokyo’s diplomacy, but friction with local communities often occurs because of concern about crime, accidents and noise.
Police in Kanagawa, near Tokyo, identified the arrested sailor as 22-year-old Olatunbosun Ugbogu.
Ugbogu, a Nigerian national, had been in U.S. military custody on a charge of desertion and was handed over to Japanese police by agreement with U.S. authorities. A small percentage of U.S. military personnel is made up of non-U.S. citizens.
Rear Admiral James Kelly, the top U.S. naval commander in Japan, bowed and apologized to the mayor of Yokosuka City, where the U.S. navy is headquartered. U.S. ambassador Thomas Schieffer expressed condolences and regret.
“I want to express to you the heartfelt regret that all of us feel. This was a tragic incident,” Schieffer told Komura.
“It puts a stain on all of us who try to serve America here in Japan.”
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference such incidents would not shake the alliance.
“But to be able to maintain and develop a firm U.S.-Japan alliance, we will seek a sound response by the American side,” he added, noting the U.S. military was already compiling new steps to prevent more crimes.
Takahashi, 61, was found dead in his taxi with stab wounds in his neck on the evening of March 19, police in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo said.
Last month, thousands of residents of the southern island of Okinawa rallied to protest crimes by U.S. troops and demand a smaller U.S. military presence in the prefecture, after a U.S. Marine was arrested on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl.
Japanese prosecutors dropped that case after the girl withdrew her complaints. The Marine was being investigated by U.S. authorities for possible violations of the military code.
Four other U.S. Marines from a base in southwest Japan face court martial over the rape of a Japanese woman last year.
The U.S. Navy in Japan said on Wednesday it would ban until April 7 public drinking and the sale of alcohol at naval bases and restrict its personnel to bases from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. except for essential travel as part of a period of mourning for the murdered taxi driver.
Under an agreement on the status of U.S. military personnel in Japan, members of the military suspected of crimes need not be handed over to Japanese authorities until they are charged.
But Washington has promised to favorably consider handing over suspects of crimes such as rape before indictment.
Japanese opposition parties and Okinawa politicians have demanded that the agreement be revised to give Japanese authorities greater legal jurisdiction.
Tokyo and Washington have rejected those calls and both sides on Thursday repeated there was no need to change the pact.
Komura said he hoped the incident would not affect the planned deployment of a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Yokosuka, the first such carrier to be stationed in Japan.
Some local civic groups are opposed to the deployment, which Japanese media said was set for August.
“I hope the deployment can take place smoothly and for that we must prevent a recurrence of such incidents,” Komura told reporters.
Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno, Writing by Linda Sieg